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Victoria-San Francisco link successful

In three months of operation, flights have averaged a 75% load

The connection established by United Airlines this summer between Victoria and San Francisco appears to be a strong one, according to a survey of passengers over a three-month period.

According to survey results, the daily non-stop service between the two cities, which started June 5 and is operated by Skywest for United Express, boasts an average 75 per cent passenger load and has led to a number of American travellers taking an extended tour of the sights of Victoria.

"We're really pleased to see that load factor, and to have that on a new flight is very good," said James Bogusz, manager of marketing and communications for the Victoria Airport Authority, who noted a high load factor is essential to maintaining the service. "But the one thing that really impressed us was the length of stay."

According to the survey results, 87 per cent of the passengers aboard the 66-seat CRJ 700 were travelling for pleasure, while 93 per cent of the travellers to Victoria said they stayed for at least three days. Roughly 32 per cent of them reported staying more than a week.

That statistic is key for the tourism industry, as long-term international visitors -- high-yield tourists -- tend to spend more when they are in the city.

"That has always been a target for tourism, to have people stay in the hotels and do those activities over time," said Bogusz. "It's a real positive to see the international traffic from San Francisco doing that and not just coming in for business and leaving the next day."

Of the 299 people responding to the survey, 27 per cent said they visited Butchart Gardens, 18 per cent toured the Royal B.C. Museum, 10 per cent had tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel and eight per cent went whale-watching.

It is a small ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy tourism picture, however, judging by the recent numbers of travellers crossing the Canadian border.

According to Statistics Canada, total international overnight stays in B.C. were down 12.5 per cent to 438,978 in September of this year compared to September 2007, and the figure is down 6.6 per cent year-to-date. Visitation to Canada was down 11 per cent to 1.7 million in September and down 4.7 per cent year-to-date.

The biggest international market, the U.S., sent 16.4 per cent fewer people to B.C. (both same-day travel and overnight) in September compared with 2007, including both same-day travel and overnight. Year to date, that number is down 11.6 per cent.

U.S. same-day and overnight visits to Canada were down 18.5 per cent in September and down 12.9 per cent year-to-date.

"It's not good," said Rod Harris, CEO of Tourism B.C. "And we're showing attrition everywhere."

Total European overnight visits to B.C. were down 8.1 per cent in September compared to the year previous and 1.4 per cent year-to-date, and Asia-Pacific visits were down 1.5 per cent in September with only a 0.5 per cent increase year-to-date.

"The question now becomes, what does the future look like and how resilient is this industry?" he said, noting it bounced back quickly after the crises of terrorist attacks in 2001 and the SARS scare. "Granted, they weren't a global financial meltdown."

Hospitality industry consultant Frank Bourree of Chemistry Consulting said luxury spending tends to get tossed out the window when finances get squeezed.

"When personal disposable income is affected or there's fear of losing disposable income, vacations go away pretty quick and dining out goes away, that's just human nature," he said. "Those are luxuries."

Bourree said even a weak Canadian dollar isn't likely to be enough to entice a lot of visitors right now.

"Long-term, if it stays low, it might," he said. "But it's too volatile right now to have an impact, and on top of that there's too many serious economic concerns in the U.S. for it to have an impact."

Harris is holding out for a strong winter season and some help from the weather to rescue the tourism year.

"Tomorrow night when it gets cold and the rains come, we're looking for a huge dump of snow on our mountains, that's a huge part of our business," he said, noting 20 per cent of total hotel revenue comes in over the December-to-February period. "With a strong winter performance we could easily see ourselves with revenue the same as last year."

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